Dir: Felix van Groeningen | Drama | 110’ | US 2018
Based on a best-selling memoir by journalist David Sheff, BEAUTIFUL BOY explores a teenage boy’s descent into crystal meth addiction. It’s a film that pulls no punches, but which avoids excessively wallowing in the physical misery of drug use. Instead, the focus is on the wider circumstances of the boy’s addiction and, specifically, the impact that it has on his father. It’s a personal, refreshing approach which makes the boy’s decline all the more moving.
An intelligent teenager with a bright future, Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) is nevertheless anxious and alienated, and he starts using drugs to help him fill the void that he feels inside. Sensing a problem, his father (Steve Carell, playing David Sheff) checks Nic into a rehab facility, but the success of the treatment is short lived – ‘relapse is part of recovery’, we’re repeatedly told, and Nic’s sense of emptiness makes him a repeat user. His choice of drug doesn’t help – as an expert explains to David, the recovery rate for crystal meth addicts, as a percentage, is in the single figures.
Playing Nic, Chalamet brings a sympathetic charm to a role which borders a little on cliché – that of the tortured, gifted artist-turned-junky – but the film belongs to Steve Carrell, who excels as the caring father who feels increasingly helpless in the face of his son’s steady decline. Following his turn as a grieving father in Richard Linklater’s recent masterpiece Last Flag Flying, Carrell seems to be moving away from the comedic roles which made his name and carving out a specific dramatic niche all for himself.
Given that it’s the relationship between father and son, rather than son and drugs, that forms the core of Beautiful Boy, the film’s scope widens out, becoming a study of family dynamicsand the way that David’s preoccupation with Nic consumes him, dominating his life and impacting his relationship with his younger children (Nic’s step-siblings): scenes such as the one showing a distracted David failing to watch his younger son swimming reach beyond the drug-addition narrative. But as David struggles with his guilt and his inability to pull Nic from the gutter, the major question that arises is: can you ever really help other people, or can they only help themselves?
Quiet and understated, the film deserves praise for its non-sensationalist approach. Though at times he brings in a touch too much sentiment (including the use of the John Lennonsong which gives the film its title), director Felix Van Groeningen handles the non-linear, elliptical narrative with a commanding efficiency. If the film’s factual closing titles make its ultimate message all too clear, one can’t help but feel it’s an effective film which serves as a pertinent reminder of the devasting and wide-reaching effects of drug use – not only on the users themselves, but also on those who love them. ALEX BARRETT
NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE